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Whatever happens, Sears’ legacy will endure

A Sears store in Hackensack, N.J., on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Seth Wenig / AP)
A Sears store in Hackensack, N.J., on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2019. (Seth Wenig / AP)
By Robert Channick Chicago Tribune

For more than century, Sears has been a business icon and the place where America shopped, evolving from a mail-order catalog to a department store chain anchoring malls across the country.

Now facing the possibility of liquidation – a bankruptcy judge is expected to decide the retailer’s fate in the coming weeks after Chairman Edward Lampert raised his bid to keep the company in business – Sears may soon be relegated to the history books.

Whether or not Sears survives, the company’s legacy is set to live on – especially in the Chicago area – in buildings, businesses and brands that may long outlast the stores themselves.

Willis (Sears) Tower

There is no greater monument to the scale of Sears at its height than the 1,451-foot, 110-story tower it erected in Chicago.

When Sears Tower opened in 1973, it was the world’s tallest building, a title it held until 1996. Sears occupied less than 20 percent of the distinctive tubular steel building at 233 S. Wacker Drive, but its name became synonymous with the iconic symbol of Chicago’s brawny skyline.

The retailer left its namesake home in 1992, moving its corporate headquarters to a sprawling suburban campus in Hoffman Estates, Illinois, and selling the tower two years later. In 2009, the name of the building was changed to Willis Tower as part of the deal for the London-based insurance firm to lease office space there. But for many Chicagoans and others, the name change didn’t take, and the building will always be known as Sears Tower.

Allstate Insurance

Allstate was founded during the depths of the Great Depression in 1931 as a wholly-owned subsidiary of Sears, and it grew into an insurance giant. Its inaugural mission was to provide mail-order car insurance, with its name borrowed from a Sears product, the Allstate automobile tire.

In 1993, Sears sold more than $2 billion worth of shares in Allstate – then the largest initial public offering of a U.S. company – as part of its exit from the financial services business. Two years later, Sears completed the spinoff, selling its remaining stake in Allstate to Sears shareholders.

Discover

Competing with Visa, Mastercard and American Express for space in consumers’ wallets, the Discover card launched nationally with a Super Bowl ad in January 1986.

The Discover card was initially part of Sears’ subsidiary Dean Witter Financial Services, a brokerage house the retailer bought in 1981. Sears spun off the subsidiary in 1993, and it merged with Morgan Stanley four years later. Discover Financial Services spun off as an independent publicly traded company in 2007.

WLS-AM 890

Sears became a broadcasting pioneer when it launched WLS, one of the first Chicago radio stations, in 1924. The call letters stood for “World’s Largest Store,” a moniker Sears earned from its massive headquarters and mail-order plant in Chicago.

Catering to the rural customer base of the Sears catalog, early program offerings included “National Barn Dance,” which became a long-running staple on the station and an influential force in country music.

Sears sold WLS to Prairie Farmer magazine in 1928, but the legacy call letters have endured through multiple owners and formats. Atlanta-based Cumulus Media is the station’s current owner.

Kit homes

While not nearly as imposing as its eponymous tower, Sears’ mail-order kit homes leave another architectural legacy dotting the landscape.

Between the early 1900s and 1942, Sears sold thousands of the homes, which buyers ordered from a catalog and built themselves – with the help of a 75-page instructional manual, detailed blueprints and, if necessary, a hired construction professional of their choice. Models such as the Barrington, Lexington, Kismet and Solace cost several thousand dollars and arrived via rail car in several thousand pieces. Thousands of completed Sears kit homes remain standing.

Sears briefly re-entered the home sales market with the purchase of residential real estate firm Coldwell Banker in 1981, which it sold along with other nonretail assets in 1993.

Craftsman

While Sears has created a number of signature brands including Kenmore and DieHard, Craftsman tools have already found a new home.

In 2017, Stanley Black & Decker bought the Craftsman brand from Sears for about $900 million in a deal that allowed both companies to make and sell their own tool lines under the same name. Sears purchased the Craftsman name for a reported $500 from a competing tool company, launching the brand in 1927.

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